Lambda Lore

David & Charlie

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The relationship between Joseph Smith’s youngest son and another man

Part 1

Romantic friendships in the late 19th Century are hard to delineate from what is recognized as homosexuality by today’s standards. Many male relationships from that period were often simply homo-emotional, meaning that physical intimacy between men was nearly impossible as it was viewed as “unmanly,” “unnatural,” and “abominable,” as well as being criminal according to the social construct of the time.

Acting upon deep emotional love was constrained, especially among the deeply religious, and the desire for a more physical intimacy often led to psychological distress. This may have been the case between the friendship of Joseph Smith’s youngest son David Hyrum Smith [1844–1904] and a young Dane named J. Charles Jensen [1847–1925]. 

It was noted that, besides David’s wife, his brother Joseph Smith III, and his mother Emma, Charles Jensen provided him “one of the most important personal relationships in his life.”

There is no evidence that the pair were ever physically or sexually intimate beyond sharing a bed, however, their relationship was definitely homo-emotional, especially on the part of the youngest son of the “Prophet Joseph.” However, on the part of Charles Jensen, whom David Smith referred to as “Charlie,” it appears his feelings were much deeper. 

The difficulty in determining the extent of the relationship between the two young men is due to the fact that David H. Smith’s posterity only kept letters written by Smith and not any of Jensen’s. Only David’s responses to Charles’ letters suggested an intense love between the pair. Smith’s letters imply there was a physical attraction to David on the part of Charles, however, there is no real evidence that David may have loved Jensen more than as a friend, except through conjecture.

Nevertheless, of David’s thousands of acquaintances, due to his being Joseph Smith’s son, he had but “one good friend,” and that was Charles Jensen. No records exist of Smith having any other friend. Charles’ friendship with David “offered intense affection that bordered on the erotic with Smith deflecting any physical attraction.”

None of David Smith’s correspondence indicated that he was offended by Charles Jensen’s “unspecified demonstrations,” and if Charles’ love for him was of a homosexual nature, to David Smith’s credit his only reaction to it, was demonstrated by “heighten concern,” and not by any remonstrative rebuke. David reassured  Charles in letters he wrote him, that he “loved him and deeply respected him for his forthright honesty,” but he attempted to set parameters on his own emotional life.

The two young men had much in common, which helped bond their friendship. Both Charles and David had “built lives without fathers” and were raised by mothers with strong personalities. They were both artists and were interested in the scientific exploration of the natural world, “knowledge which nourished the secular side of David’s soul.”

They both were deeply involved in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly known then as the Josephites, which they believed was the legitimate successor to the church which David’s father had founded.

They both had a mutual disdain for “western Mormonism,” also commonly known as the Brighamite Church, and for Brigham Young in particular, who they viewed as a usurper. The pair also practiced Joseph Smith’s “Word of Wisdom” and “abhorred tobacco,” abstained from alcohol, and “billiard parlors” in an attempt to live “Christ-like” lives.

More than anything else, Jensen’s friendship was said to have “eased the ache of loneliness” for Smith.

David Hyrum Smith was born nearly five months after his father was assassinated. At the time of his birth, Eliza Snow, a Mormon poet and plural wife of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, wrote a verse commemorating David’s birth. The last stanza contained the words, “Thou may’st draw from love and kindness, All a mother can bestow; But alas! On earth, a father, You art destin’d not to know.”

Some claimed that Joseph Smith ordained his unborn child as his successor.

David was raised by his mother, Emma Hale Smith, and her second husband, Lewis C. Bidamon, and was reared in the Nauvoo Mansion. In 1860, when he was 14 years old, his eldest brother, Joseph Smith III, organized the unaffiliated Mormons of the Midwest into a new church as the legitimate successor to his father’s church. David was baptized in 1861 into what became the RLDS Church, now known as the Community of Christ.

David Smith was noted for having an excellent singing voice, being an oil painter, and writing poetry, which as a young man “often revealed his personality and emotional struggles.” One such poem contained the lines,

“I strive to win again the pleasant thought;
The music only speaks in mournful tone;
The very flowers wear a shade, and naught
Can bring again the halo that is gone;
And every company my soul hath sought,
Though crowds surround me, finds me still alone.
I turn unto my tasks with weary hands,
Grieving with sadness, knowing not the cause
Before my face a desert path expands,
I will not falter in the toil, nor pause;
Only, my spirit somehow understands
This mournful truth — I am not what I was.”

Hesperis, “I am not as I was,” Iowa, January 1872

A lonely melancholy seemed to possess David, and in 1869 he wrote to Emma Smith Bidemon, “Mother I must tell you … I feel very sad, and the tears run out of my eyes all the time, and I don’t know why. … strive as I will my heart sinks like lead. … I must tell someone my troubles.”

That loneliness would be eased by his intense relationship with Charles Jensen, although David married in May 1870 at the age of 25.

The 1870 federal census of Nauvoo listed David as living in his parent’s home with his 19-year-old bride. His occupation was listed as being an “oil painter.” 

There is no indication that his marriage was more than a sense of duty and as a cure for his loneliness. It was stated that while on his last mission to Utah, David confused his “homesickness” for his wife with simple “loneliness” as he had never engaged with her on any emotional level. However, David achieved his “emotional breakthrough with Charles, who loved him as a friend, and perhaps beyond friendship.”

David and his wife would have a son but then they separated in 1877 when David was committed, by his brother Joseph Smith III, to the Northern Illinois Hospital and Asylum for the Insane in Elgin. He was confined there for 27 years until his death in 1904. In 1889, Charles Jensen had tried to keep David with him in Council Bluff but was unsuccessful due to David’s mental illness.

It was noted by historians that David’s mental deterioration probably started with a nervous breakdown “early in 1870.” He had gone on a proselyting mission to Utah that year with his brother Alexander Smith hoping to convert Mormons dissatisfied over polygamy and Brigham Young’s autocratic control. While on this mission, the brothers stayed with their Smith cousins. David came to hate Brigham Young for his attacks on the character of his mother, Emma, who Young despised. After returning home David, he witnessed Charles being baptized by his brother Joseph Smith III.

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